A Glorified Smoke: Ernesto Carrillo and El Credito Cigars
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93
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"I married a woman who is obsessed with quality," says Carillo. He started dating Elena when they were both 15. "She is my biggest critic. She will taste a cigar and say, 'Ernie, this bites,' or whatever." It drives me crazy but she is right. We get in fights about it ... now my daughter wants to show me how to run my business!"
Obviously the Carillo family is dedicated to quality, and it is increasingly difficult for them to remain so modest about their cigars as aficionados become more aware of El Credito. In recent months, many of Carillo's most popular sizes have been out of stock. For instance, he had back orders for 25,000 Wavell Robustos in November. Some of this was due to problems created by Hurricane Andrew, which struck South Florida last August. Although the factory was undamaged, many of the rollers did not work for a few weeks because they had to sort out personal problems caused by the storm. The shortage of El Credito cigars has been more a question of demand outpacing supply than anything else.
"I have so much demand now that I can't make enough cigars, "Carillo says. He annually sells about 30 percent of his cigars directly to consumers through the mail. Many are from overseas. "I can't get enough quality rollers--which means that I can't get enough Cubans."
Carillo is incredibly proud of his all-Cuban team of rollers, and he is the first to point out to a visitor that this roller worked at the Romeo y Julieta factory while another worked at El Laguito, producer of Cuba's legendary Cohibas. He has tried rollers from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and other countries, but no one, in his opinion, can roll cigars like a Cuban. "Nearly everyone working here is Cuban," he says proudly. "The people here are very proud and conscientious about what they do. They get very upset if things are not just right with the tobacco and the rolling."
El Credito Cigars was purchased by the Carillo family in 1928, although the firm was still based in Cuba at the time. It was originally in the town of San Antonio de los Banos in Cuba. The family was well-respected in the region and also owned several tobacco plantations near the city of Pinar del Rio. Carillo's father, Ernesto, was a leading politician and was a member of the Cuban Senate.
It all changed, however, with the Communist revolution. "I remember when Castro came into Havana in 1959," says Carillo. "I looked up in the sky and saw warplanes. Tanks were in the streets. It was a wild scene. I was only six at the time. I didn't think it was the end of the world, but there was a sense of insecurity. I didn't know if I would ever see my parents again."
Carillo's father was arrested several times, and the government took most of their property including the factory, warehouses and plantations. His father finally had to go into hiding and later escaped to Miami. "They say that a lot of politicians who lived in Cuba before the revolution were rich," he says. "My father certainly wasn't. We lived in a small three bedroom apartment, and my father was only interested in helping people."
His mother soon followed her husband to Miami, leaving Carillo with his aunt. He was an only child and his mother did not want to raise the suspicions of authorities, which would certainly have happened if both she and her son left together. A few months after his mother's departure, his aunt bought a return ticket to Miami for Carillo. "I was told that I was going to visit Miami," he says. "I didn't know that I was leaving my country. But my aunt was crying as she packed my suitcase, and I knew something was happening. All I could think of was that I was going to be with my parents."
Dressed in his Sunday-best gray suit, tie and hat, Carillo boarded a DC-3 for the hour-long trip to Miami. He can't remember much about the flight other than the various people who were friendly to the young boy traveling alone. His parents met him at the airport with tears in their eyes. For a while, the Carillos lived in a hotel in downtown Miami, and while his father searched for work, he and his mother spent the day at the Dixie movie theater across the street.
Finally, with the help of some money from a relative in the states, Carillo's father began a restaurant in Miami called the Pan American and found an apartment in today's Little Havana area. After a year, he sold the restaurant and bought a bar called The Kirby. "All the Cubans used to go there," says Carillo. "As soon as a Cuban got into town, he would go to The Kirby."
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